June 10, 2003
Crowding out in the exam industry

Here's an article in today's Telegraph by Elizabeth Rickards:

English is the backbone of our education. Without a good understanding of the language and an ability to write it formally, progress in other subjects is held back. A command of the subject is essential not just for academic success: it is the key skill in the workplace.

How ironic, then, that English is in decline in this country whilst millions abroad study it because they fully understand its value.

Good intentions, endless initiatives, literacy hours, targets and league tables have still to make any real impact on the standard of school-leavers' written English. Employers and university lecturers alike bemoan the fact that young people cannot be relied on to spell, punctuate or write clearly. Even Oxford dons complain that some of our brightest students cannot write accurately.

But if it is true that employers want more literate employees than they are getting, then surely these employers ought to identify a satisfactory exam which if passed will ensure that the candidate is suitably literate, and make that a condition of entry. Problem solved.

Existing exams are not satisfactory, says Ms. Rickards.

It might not have mattered so much if GCSE English Language – the national test in literacy, which is being taken this week and next by nearly 700,000 15-year-olds – were not a fundamentally flawed exam. It is an inaccurate way of measuring literacy. Indeed, it is not really an exam at all.

Exam boards compete for business. They make a virtue of producing "friendly" options. In English Language GCSE, that means the exam may contain few surprises.

But if employers are so contemptuous of such alleged qualifications, why can they not establish their own standards, and create a different sort of competition, between examiners competing not to dumb down but to examine accurately the qualities which employers prize? Once this kind of exam system is established, this would be the one which teachers would prepare their pupils for. Seriously, why doesn't that kind of thing happen?

Instead of this, which is what happens now:

But there is more. Twenty per cent of the marks in English Language GCSE are for "speaking and listening". Many people who cannot write well can speak very well indeed. However, what employers and universities want to know is how good a student is on paper.

The inclusion of speaking and listening in the overall marks distorts this information. It should be graded separately. Another 20 per cent of the marks are for coursework. As this is not supervised, it, too, is a less than reliable benchmark.

And it gets worse.

When marking the exam papers, OCR examiners are instructed not to mark writing in section A "unless the expression is so bad it impedes communication".

In other words, for half of our national test in literacy, a sentince that had no fool stop or coma but contaned the rite anser in terms of meening (sic) could get full marks because the spelling and punctuation mistakes would be ignored.

Obviusly I coodent mis that parergrarf.

In other markets, the rich aren't the only ones getting a semi-decent product. I don't shop at Harrods, but I get good stuff at Tescos. So why can there not be semi-decent Tesco-style exams that regular people can study for and pass. And then they can enter the workforce with an adequate – and improving if that's what is wanted by those employers – ability to read and write.

Markets correct all sorts of other failings in the state system, like unsatisfactory maths or English teaching. People with the cash to spare on other educational extras sally forth and find them. So how come exams are such a shambles, and in basic English of all things? How come there is no "emerging private sector" in that?

My guess of an answer would be (a) the expense of setting up a new exam system, combined with (b) the phenomenon of "crowding out".

Start with (a). Establishing a successful exam brand is possible, but I would guess that it would be a major undertaking. It would be much more expensive than establishing a respected teaching system for example, because the key to success is getting a lot of people to respect the brand, all at once. Passing the exam if no one has heard of it is no good. Being the only employer who demands this particular sort of qualification would cause you to reject good people merely because they hadn't taken this exam. So the system has to catch on big time. It would be like launching a major software package.

Which means that (b), the crowding out effect, would be important. Crowding out is what the government does when it participates in a market, or threatens to, or is widely assumed to have to, in a way that makes it impossible to tell what it will be doing in two or three years time. If you want to start that brand new exam brand, your nightmare is that in three years time the government just might get its act together and start to compete seriously with you. It might, for example, copy what you've done but decide to be in charge of such a system itself, and cut you out of it, by bribing half your workers away from you. By the time it had become clear that you knew your business better than the government did, the damage would have been done to your bottom line. So, in a business like the exam business, best to stay out, and leave the field clear for short-termist cowboy chicanery, like selling the exam to the mere takers of it as something that is getting progressively easier, but which still sounds good – or which sounds as if it will sound good – to employers.

Which, I further surmise, is the world that the average pupil in the average state school now inhabits.

Hav er nise dei.

I was going to end this with that urmyoozing kwip, but I won't because there is another answer to this question, which is that there is an emerging market in exams now coming nicely to the boil. It's just that I haven't yet heard about it. If that is the case, have an even nicer day, and if you know about all this, please let me know about it too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:22 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSovietisation